Council member, activists call for municipal broadband
With school beginning in Beacon this week, and thousands of students taking some or all of their classes online, some officials, educators and activists fear that the city’s “digital divide” between those with access to the internet and those without could become even more pronounced.
Statewide, 27 percent of students and 9 percent of teachers don’t have adequate internet access, according to a report issued in July by the nonprofit Common Sense Media. Neither the Beacon school district nor the city government could provide figures on how many households in the city lack internet access, but the suspicion is that most who do are African American, Latino or elderly residents who live on limited incomes, said City Council Member Dan Aymar-Blair.
In Dutchess County, according to a study by the United Way, about 37 percent of residents live below the poverty line or on “survival” budgets that include only $75 monthly per family for technology.
“Every aspect of human life is centered around the internet,” Aymar-Blair said. “If we have 10 to 15 percent of our neighbors without internet, we have to help solve that problem or we risk digital inequity becoming an education and health inequity.”
The council member said he sees two primary needs that must be addressed in Beacon: establishing free public Wi-Fi in key parts of the city, such as Main Street and its parks, and increasing access speed and/or the lack of service to some households.
To remedy this, the city could create its own high-speed network, a community organization could take the lead, or the city and nonprofits could work together. However, any of these scenarios, Aymar-Blair said, could take “a decade of work.”
It’s also expensive. In 2010, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, began offering high-speed internet access to its 170,000 residents. The project cost $330 million (about a third of which came from a federal grant) but allowed the city to set up more than 130 Wi-Fi hotspots to keep people connected during the pandemic.
In West Des Moines, Iowa, officials invested nearly $40 million in a broadband network, and in Wilson, North Carolina, Greenlight Community Broadband is the first community-owned, “fiber-to-the-home” network in the state.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in December vetoed a bill that would have required the Public Service Commission to study the feasibility of municipal broadband, saying the study would be too expensive but that he and legislators could revisit the issue later.
State Sen. Sue Serino, whose district includes the Highlands, and Assembly Members Sandy Galef, whose district includes Philipstown, and Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon, each supported doing the study. The municipal service would be distinct from a $500 million state program launched in 2015 to pay internet service providers to expand their networks to less-populated areas, particularly upstate. Companies typically do not service rural areas because of the infrastructure costs.
Greta Byrum, a Mutual Aid Beacon volunteer who is also the director of digital equity initiatives at the New School for Social Research and of a project called Community Tech New York, agreed with Aymar-Blair that it would take a lot of work to set up a Wi-Fi network that covers all of Beacon. But, she added, “it’s totally doable” if focused on specific neighborhoods.
Mutual Aid, a volunteer group that formed at the onset of the pandemic, is working with Beacon 4 Black Lives on projects to bring free Wi-Fi to public places and underserved neighborhoods that could suffer most now that school has started.
Mutual Aid last weekend created a Wi-Fi hub at one of the pavilions at Memorial Park and has plans for similar projects at Tompkins Terrace, the Davies Apartments and Polhill Park.
The Beacon City School District also purchased about 75 mobile hotspot units to distribute to students in need. Between the shutdown this past spring and the beginning of the new school year, the district has given out about 45 of them, said Superintendent Matt Landahl.
The units cost the district about $80 each, plus operating costs, and are programmed to work only with the Google Chromebook computers supplied to each student.
In the long term, Byrum believes Beacon could follow the lead of Sullivan County, where a $160,000 pilot project seeks to provide high-speed internet service to 5,500 people using Citizens Broadband Radio Service, a new spectrum allocated by the Federal Communications Commission that broadcasts the internet over lower frequencies, similar to the LTE bands used by mobile phones.
While Citizens Broadband Radio Service would require towers or other “mounting assets” to transmit its signals, it could work in a place like Beacon, where a full broadband buildout — including digging up the streets to bury large amounts of fiber — might not be feasible.
“The door is open for these new kinds of solutions,” Byrum said. “There’s more political will than there has been” in recent memory.
How the Internet Gets to You
Across the country, fiber pipelines owned by companies like Crown Castle run underground along highways and train tracks and between population centers, with “co-location centers” between. Combined with huge bandwidth providers such as Cogent and Hurricane Electric, this network forms the “internet backbone” of the U.S.
Mobile networks such as Verizon or T-Mobile, and cable companies (in Beacon, it’s Optimum) handle billing and other issues and are considered “last-mile” distributors to homes and businesses within a population center.
Optimum holds a franchise agreement with the city for television service, although “anybody can provide any other type of service,” City Administrator Anthony Ruggiero told the City Council during its meeting on Monday (Sept. 14). However, Verizon said last year that it has no plans to expand its high-speed FIOS service into Beacon.
Instead, Verizon has asked city officials about installing a series of “small-cell” wireless facilities that the company said would boost wireless signals and fill in coverage gaps.